By Allegra Huston. Photos by Jim O’Donnell
I’ve mentioned before that I’m the kind of person who always orders the same thing. It’s not that I’m an unadventurous eater; it’s just that when I love a dish, I rarely see a good reason to strike out into the unknown. Restaurants that change their menu often are, in my view, the places for experimentation. (Check out last month’s column on Common Fire, my newest favorite haunt.) Restaurants that never change their menu provide me with a sense of comfort and continuity. I feel safe. I relax. I am spared even the stress of decision-making.
The two dishes I’ve ordered more frequently than anything else, in the 18 years I’ve lived in Taos, are the fish tacos at Guadalajara Grill and the chicken tacos at Orlando’s. In neither place has the menu changed an iota in nearly two decades. Nor does it need to.
I plan to wax lyrical about the Guad in a future column, so for now … Orlando’s. If you don’t already know and love those tacos, I beg you to check them out. Greasiness has a place in tacos—and that place is the fish tacos at the Guad. Orlando’s tacos, in contrast, are fresh and clean-tasting: the shredded chicken is marinated in red chile with a satisfying spiciness and piled high with lettuce and chunks of tomato, all folded into a soft, warm blue corn tortilla. Three of them. And nothing else, other than a dish of fresh salsa to pour on top.
I love the simplicity of Orlando’s. They do what they do with a confidence bred of consistent success. You know what you’re going to get there, and you know it will always be made to the same high standard. Why strain to be different or dress things up, when what you do is so perfectly dialed in?In your service, dear reader, I did not order the chicken tacos ($9.75) on my most recent visit. My son and I each ordered a different combination plate, which covered most of the menu. An extra order of Sayulita fish tacos ($9.95) rounded it out. (Sayulita is a little beach town north of Puerto Vallarta, on the Pacific coast.) These tacos have nice big chunks of breaded, fried fish, heaped with lots of fresh tomato and cucumber, with green chile mayo, in a flour tortilla.
My plate was called Los Primos (“the cousins”): a pork tamale and a chile relleno ($10.25). The filling of the tamale has the same red chile marinade as the chicken in the tacos: just the right amount of bite against the sweetness of the corn flour. The chile relleno, which is stuffed with cheese, had some heat to it, too. I chose red chile for the tamale and green for the chile relleno, to keep the flavors aligned. The green is hotter than the red, nice and chunky.
Like all the plates at Orlando’s, excluding tacos and tostada bowl, the cousins came with posole, beans, and a little salad of shredded
lettuce and tomato. I’ve never seen posole anywhere outside Northern New Mexico. Orlando’s treats it not as a soup or stew, but as a starch akin to rice or potatoes on the plate: sauce-free, light and fluffy, with just a hint of red chile and onion to give it a lift.
My son chose La Reina (“the queen”): a cheese and onion enchilada—red or green? (by the way, that’s the New Mexico state question)—along with two marinated pork medallions smothered in an absolutely fantastic chile caribe ($11.50). You can find the recipe on the Food Network website, as given by Orlando to Bobby Flay. I looked it up to find out the secret ingredient that gives chile caribe that roasted, slightly bitter taste. Answer: fresh red chiles toasted in the oven, then boiled and blended with cumin and garlic.
Without the enchilada, this wonderful dish goes under the name of Carne Adovada ($11.75). The name is misleading, because it’s better than any carne adovada you’ve ever had (even the burritos at the old Rita’s), for two reasons: first, that the pork—in medallions rather than chunks or shreds—stays moist and tender; and second, the chile caribe. This is, maybe, the one place where Orlando adds a signature twist. No wonder Bobby Flay featured it as the best of Taos cooking.
No wonder Bobby Flay featured it as the best of Taos cooking.
“Blue corn shrimp enchiladas, red, easy on the cheese” ($12.50) was the perennial order of my son’s father, and I have no doubt it still is. Italians don’t mix seafood and cheese, but Northern New Mexicans have no such qualms. For my money, these are the best classic enchiladas anywhere.
Orlando’s also wins, hands down, the décor prize. Talk about not being afraid of color! Above a dado-height panel of corrugated tin, the walls are green, purple, pink, and mango, with contrasting window frames. The dark blue ceiling glows night-like above patterned tin light shades and ristras hanging here and there. On the concrete floor, old coats of green, red, and white paint are wearing through. The tables are paved with bright Talavera tiles. The desserts—including avocado pie, which I’ve never tasted because I cannot resist ordering guacamole to start—are displayed in a punched-tin cupola-topped spotlit tower, and Day of the Dead imagery dots the walls. The servers wear T-shirts with the spectacular logo—a calavera holding a flaming chile—while they negotiate the incredibly tight gap into the kitchen and pass through two narrow doorways to the tables in the patio outside, which is surrounded by luxuriant bushes and strung with fairy lights.
Have you ever seen those speeded-up videos of people flowing around one another on crowded New York sidewalks? Orlando’s wait staff move with the same sureness and grace. It’s mesmerizing to watch, and a really excellent alternative source of entertainment if your table conversation starts to sag.
Soon there will be a fire in the patio, to keep diners warm while they wait for a table. And now that I’ve been forced to break my habit of ordering the same thing every time, I’ll leave it broken in two: summer, chicken tacos; winter, carne adovada with chile caribe.
Orlando’s New Mexican Cafe
1114 Don Juan Valdez Lane, El Prado
TAOS MAGAZINE | OCTOBER 2016